By Richard Fellinger
York [PA] Mayor John Brenner urged lawmakers to reject new bills that would limit a local government's power to use eminent domain, saying the bills would make it harder for cities to fight blight.
Brenner testified Tuesday before the House State Government Committee on a pair of bills proposed by state Rep. Thomas Yewcic (D-Cambria).
Yewcic is bothered by a controversial decision in June from the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that New London, Conn., had the authority to seize homes for a private development project. But the court also ruled that states are free to ban the practice, and Pennsylvania is one of many states considering new restrictions on when eminent domain can be used.
Yewcic's bills state that local government has no power to take property by eminent domain in three cases: when the land would be turned over to a nonpublic interest, to increase the local tax base, or without a "reverter clause" that would give the land back if it is ever used for a nonpublic purpose.
Brenner, who is also president of the Pennsylvania League of Cities and Municipalities, described eminent domain as an economic development tool that would be threatened if the state restricted its use.
Years of legal precedent support the idea that "private use can be for the public good," Brenner said.
In York City, eminent domain was used recently to seize a blighted home on Thomas Street and clear the way for a block of new family homes, Brenner said.
"If the power of eminent domain is taken away or restricted, our urban centers will find it difficult to revitalize and urban sprawl will continue," Brenner said.
Conservative lawmakers such as Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) sparred with Brenner and said the state needs to restrict eminent domain.
Metcalfe criticized Brenner for his frequent use of the term "blighted property" in his testimony. Metcalfe said the term is often used by local officials who want to use eminent domain in a heavy-handed way.
Brenner said most local governments in Pennsylvania use eminent domain "as a last resort" for vacant properties.
"And most of us use it rarely," Brenner said.
Yewcic said local government should only use eminent domain for public use, and he blasted the Supreme Court ruling as "a decision to emasculate our property rights."
"I have always believed, as I was taught in school, that property rights are essential to a free society," Yewcic said.
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